Monday, August 20, 2012

Gu Kailai gets suspended death sentence for murder

Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, has been given a suspended death sentence for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

Gu Kailai had not contest charges at her one-day trial that she poisoned Heywood in November 2011, something the court appears to have taken into account when passing sentence.

The court ruled that Gu Kailai, 52, had prepared a solution of cyanide hydrochloride and used it to poison Neil Heywood, 42, in a hotel room in Chongqing. “Her crime was enormous and its outcome was severe. She played the major role, and should be sentenced to death,” said Tang Yigan, the vice chief of the Intermediate People’s Court in the central city of Hefei, where the trial took place.

However, the court explained it had suspended the sentence in light of Gu’s mental state, her admissions of guilt and remorse, and her cooperation with the investigation.

Gu, a former lawyer, will now serve a minimum of 14 years in prison. She has also been stripped of her “political rights”, including her freedom of speech. An aide in her household, 33-year-old Zhang Xiaojun, was sentenced to nine years in prison for helping Gu carry out the crime.

The court found that, in the latter half of 2011, Gu Kailai and her son surnamed Bo had conflicts with Heywood over economic interests. Heywood is said to have threatened Bo in e-mails, which made Gu Kailai fear for her son's personal safety and decide to murder Heywood [BBC / SkyCNN / France24 / Al Jazeera / CCTVTelegraph / Guardian / Washington Post / Xinhua].

"Rigged spectacle"

The whole affair has been described in western media as ‘a rigged spectacle’ [CNN].  “The post-Mao leadership has established a solid tradition of not killing losers in political fights, and it's in the interest of everyone to extend that protection at least as far as spouses,” Donald Clarke, a professor at George Washington University Law School and founder of Chinalaw, observed even before the end of the trial.

Gu Kailai has been sentenced to death with a two-year suspension. Under Article 50 of the Criminal Law, if she commits no new intentional crimes while in prison, that sentence will be commuted after two years to life imprisonment. It can even be commuted to 25 years’ imprisonment if she “genuinely demonstrates major merit” (确有重大立功表现). And further reductions are possible after the initial commutation.

Under Article 78 of the Criminal Law and a 2011 Supreme People’s Court directive, those sentenced to life imprisonment or a term of years (including as a result of a commuted death sentence) may have their sentences reduced for ‘good behaviour’.

There are limits concerning how much can be shaved off a sentence, though there could be provisions for cutting the prison term to as little as 9 years for ‘medical reasons’ [Lawprofessors blog]

Police cover-up

Meanwhile four police officers from Chongqing were also found guilty of helping Gu to cover her tracks. Guo Weiguo, the former deputy chief of the police bureau, was sentenced to eleven years for ordering his officers to “fake, hide and destroy” the evidence. The three others, Li Yang, Wang Pengfei and Wang Zhi received lesser sentences, partly because they had disobeyed Guo.

As for the police chief who blew the lid off the whole can of worms, he has been tried and sentenced ‘in secret’ according to recent reports. Wang Lijun, 52, was tried behind closed doors in the central city of Chengdu on Monday 13th August, according to Cable TV, a Hong Kong television channel. The channel did not reveal any sources for its information and a spokesman at the Chengdu People's Intermediate Court said he had "not heard" of any trial taking place, or if there would be a trial in the future [BBC / Telegraph].

"Much bigger plot"

There have been accusations from Gu Kailai that Wang knew of the murder plot and had assisted in the cover-up. If true Wang might be facing prosecution for being an accessory to the crime, as well as charges of treason for handing over information to the United States.

It was only after Wang fled to the US consulate, dressed in a lady's wig and in apparent fear for his life, that the UK asked for an investigation into Heywood's death to be reopened, sparking China's biggest political crisis for decades [Wang Lijun incident].

Steve Tsang, from the University of Nottingham, said Wang's treatment might offer an indication as to whether there was "a much bigger plot" behind Bo's fall. "When something is decided on how Wang Lijun is to be treated we will have a better sense of if he was being 'required' to do what he did, ordered to do it," Tsang says.

"Betrayal of the Party is actually more serious than treason. The Communist Party has a record of being extremely harsh on traitors, much harsher than on its enemies. If he comes out lightly it means he is not being treated as a traitor. That could only be the case if he was ordered to do what he did and was successful in doing it."

Crisis far from over

The crisis is far from over. While Gu has been dealt with, there is still the matter of the purged politician Bo Xilai. It remains unclear whether or not he had knowledge of his wife’s involvement in murder. Even if not directly involved, the affair has shone a light on the apparent widespread corruption, money laundering and other criminal activity being acted out in what should be the ordered seats of local government.

The state media have tried to separate the Bo Xilai scandal from the murder of Neil Heywood by his wife. “This is a criminal case, and society should see it as one," wrote the Communist Party tabloid, The Global Times. But the paper, like many other state run news outlets, ignored the close connection of Wang Lijun, now said to be involved in the cover-up, and Bo Xilai. This was a political scandal that went to the heart of China’s administration, and the truth and details were being conveniently ignored or brushed under the rug [BBC].

It  is widely believed that Bo Xilai’s cleaning up of corruption was as much to do with sweeping away his political enemies. And this could come back and haunt the communist party at a politically sensitive time.

The Communist Party finishes a once-in-a-decade power handover later this year, and while they may wish to put the Bo Xilai scandal behind them, this may be difficult.

As the new administration heads into 2013, they are likely to face an outcry from lawyers and prisoners' families who allege that Bo and his long-time police chief, Wang Lijun, presided over rampant injustice in the name of fighting criminal gangs and corruption in Chongqing, the southwest municipality that was their fiefdom.

"We'll certainly appeal,” says Zou Zhiyong, a Chongqing businessman who said his father-in-law Li Xiaofeng is among the once rich or powerful prisoners planning to seek release and redress from convictions made under Bo.

But he like many others are waiting for the right time. “We have to wait and take into account China's special political environment," said Zou. "We'll wait until after the 18th Party Congress. Many cases will come forward then." [Chicago Tribune]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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